There are several tricks you can employ to make your video projects more visually interesting. But some are easier to achieve than others.
I am probably wrong - and I'm sure someone will tell me if I am - but Steven Spielberg's toothy epic Jaws was the first film to use the now astoundingly commonplace shifting perspective effect. You know the one, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is sitting on the beach with his missus when he sees what he thinks is a shark in the water. In that moment, the background appears to fall away, while his horrified and rather leathery face moves into close up, giving the scene a shifting, slightly dizzying feel. The same technique has been used many times since - and made considerably easier to achieve with the use of computer-controlled camera dollies and lens rigs - but with a bit of practice, you can use it in your own productions, too.
It's actually based on a simple principle, and relies entirely on the way light is distorted by a camera lens when it's at differing levels of magnification. At wide angle, for example, the background and foreground are stretched out from the subject; at the lens' full zoom, the foreground and background close in (See screen shot). Normally we don't notice this because the subject in frame is changing as the camera zooms. And there's where the trick lies.
By keeping the subject in frame as you zoom out, the changes in the camera's perspective become immediately apparent, particularly now that you have a static point of reference. So how do you keep the subject in frame while zooming in/out?
Ideally, this would involve a dolly rig (a camera platform on rails), but as you're unlikely to have access to this kind of equipment, an office chair with wheels on it will act as a stand-in. Position the chair so that, when you sit in it with your camera, the subject is framed accordingly with the lens zoomed in fully. Now get a friend to push the chair forwards steadily, while you zoom out. What you're aiming for is to match the speed of the chair to the speed of the zoom, and it's not easy. Just keep trying until you get a take that works, and try to work slowly - otherwise you may experience problems with autofocus hunting. It may be a difficult technique to achieve, but it can be extremely effective at conveying shock, dismay or the feeling that the world is falling away or closing in on you.
A different view
Another way to add that feeling of unbalance to your subject matter is to play with moving camera angles. It's simple enough to achieve this by shifting the camera during filming, but this also tends to add camera shake to the mix - which is something that you want to avoid.
Generally, you'd use a tripod or monopod to hold things steady, but this limits your range of movement to pans and tilts. Another way to do it is in post-production, using the zoom, position and rotation controls of your video editing software. A slow rotation combined with an unusual camera angle can be a great way of creating a feeling of unease or suspense. If you're using multiple cuts with different viewpoints in the same sequence, my tip would be to keep the rotation relative to the subject, and maintain the same velocity. For example, if you have a man facing the camera at the end of a long corridor with a slow clockwise rotation and then cut to the subject's eye view facing in the opposite direction, it's a good idea to swap the rotation to anti-clockwise to match. Otherwise you run the risk of jarring your audience out of the suspension of disbelief you've worked so hard to achieve.
Be careful with the amount of rotation you apply during the edit, though. A rotation of only 12 degrees will bring the edge of your footage into the "video safe" area (meaning that it will be visible when you play it back on a TV). Taking it any further will show black. In these instances, it's a good idea to apply a little post-production zoom to compensate - but keep it minimal to avoid losing too much image definition.
Another widespread camera technique involves the use of a rig called a Steadicam, or floating camera platform. Designed to smooth out the bumps and jolts caused when you shoot and walk at the same time, floating rigs are great for chasing action or tracking shots without shaking the footage about. There are many commercial floating rigs that you can spend your cash on, or you can take the more frugal route and build your own (I recommend taking a look at Johnny Chung Lee's guide at www.cs.cmu.edu/~johnny/steadycam/). But, if you're in a pinch, or don't have the time or finances to build or buy a floating rig, there's a quick workaround you can use with your standard tripod - assuming that it's a reasonably heavy one. Collapse the legs and extend the tripod neck completely. With the camera attached, grip the neck beneath the camera mount and lift the tripod (See screen shot). As long as you don't tense up your arm too much, the weight of the tripod legs will act as a counterbalance to the camera, evening out any sudden movements as you walk. Admittedly, it'll put a strain on your arm after a while, but it's a handy technique for getting a better chase shot without the need for specialist equipment. Spreading the tripod legs will reduce lateral motions even further, but makes it more likely you'll catch it on something, which could ruin the shot.
Just remember to keep an eye on where you're going as well as what you're filming - you really don't want to walk headlong into a telegraph pole while you're carrying expensive video equipment, after all.
That's about all I've got space for this month. Next time I'll be looking at editing techniques and conventions. In the meantime, if you have any tips or tricks you'd like share, feel free to send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. There's no prize for any published suggestions other than the warm glow you'll get from helping your fellow videographers.
CONTENT, NOT CAMERA
If you ever wanted proof that it's the content that matters, and not the camera you shot it with, go to www.aviola.com/the_sad_song.html. This sequence was captured with the basic video function of a digital still camera and edited together using Adobe's After Effects.
It's a perfect example of how you can turn a camera's limitations into something altogether more special, with transparency, multiple frames and a non-standard aspect ratio used to particularly good effect.